Looks like I got it figured out after playing around a bit.
I started with using the EPEL version of Python 2.6 and adding a new path to a python softlink in my homedir to Python 2.6 like the following in my .bashrc:
That failed on the 'as' keyword in the 'except' phrases in Python code, so bitbake started and almost immediately failed.
Next up, I used the CentOS 5 instructions on this page for the standalone Python tarball:
After untaring the archive, moving it to /opt and adding it to my PATH variable via .bashrc, bitbake seems much happier.
Now, on to the bitbake and the next issue